How To Become an Extra
What Does A Extra Do?
“Being an Extra means a lot of stop and go,” says Dennis Maler, a Background Actor based out of Boston who has appeared on Castle Rock and Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty. He usually arrives early on set — at approximately 6 a.m. — and is guided to the Production Assistant, who gives him paperwork to fill out for that day’s work. Then he gets put into “holding,” which is the area where all the Extras spend their time until they’re needed for a scene. In most cases, the notice that he received for that day’s production will detail what he needs to wear, but in some circumstances, he might go to wardrobe if the scene calls for very specific or unusual attire. He might also spend a few minutes in Hair and Makeup.
Once it’s time to film his scene, Maler and the rest of the Extras will be directed by a Production Assistant to stand still or move around a certain part of the set. Most of the time, after the production breaks for lunch, Maler’s day is done. In some rare cases, though, he might be asked to go back to work, especially if the production is running behind schedule.
Maler has always been an Actor, but he has also worked in other industries, notably radio. For the last four years, however, more of his time has been focused on his work as a Background Actor. He notes that for someone wanting to one day become an Extra, it helps to gain membership into SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents film and television Actors. Generally, having SAG-AFTRA membership means more work opportunities.
Maler gained SAG-AFTRA eligibility through his radio work, but he notes that membership must be offered to a potential member. No one can just join on their own. While his route into SAG-AFTRA might be a little unusual for the typical Extra, he explains that in most cases, non-union Background Actors must complete three days of work for a SAG-AFTRA production to become SAG-AFTRA eligible. In these cases, the non-union Extra will receive a voucher to work on a union job, and when they collect three vouchers for three union productions, they will be offered membership into SAG-AFTRA.
Education & Training
For many film specialties, a college degree is a key to future success. Not so for individuals wanting to one day become an Extra. Says Maler, “The majority of Background Actors that I’ve met have no formal acting training.” That doesn’t mean being an Extra doesn’t require learned skills, though.
Because the purpose of an Extra is to fill out the background of a scene, it’s important that anyone looking for that kind of work understand how to follow direction. Also, Maler emphasizes that Extra work can be highly beneficial for someone wanting to act in more visible roles. So for anyone with a passion for a professional acting career, acting classes are critical to success. He also recommends making and working in low-budget or independent features. All of these opportunities, including Extra work, can help the aspiring Actor.
Experience & Skills
The Casting Directors who make Extra selections are often seeking a particular look. So in some cases, it’s completely out of the hands of the Extra when getting chosen for a scene. That being said, Maler notes that some attributes can come in handy. In his experience, Background Actors with cars, bicycles and dogs are often called for in casting notices. Recently, he received a notice for Extras who can ice-skate. So while someone looking for Extra work may not be able to anticipate certain casting needs, it’s possible that a certain skill or characteristic might be exactly what the next production is looking for.
According to Maler, the person who is most likely to succeed as an Extra is “someone who is able to listen to what you’re told to do.” Because Background Actors often must wait long portions of the day until it’s time for them to shoot a scene, patience is also very important.
As with many professions, first impressions can make a difference for an Extra. Maler states that the Extras who are friendly and easy-going are often the ones who “get called back for more work and receive better positioning in a scene.” Moreover, casting notices typically go out only a day before Extras are needed, so having a go-with-the-flow personality and schedule can also be beneficial.
As Maler mentioned, casting notices do not leave much room for planning ahead of time. A successful Extra must be available on short notice. They should also be diligent about checking email to make sure that they respond immediately to any casting notice for which they are eligible. He adds that depending on where a Background Actor might live, they may need to drive an hour or more to the shooting location.
In many cases, though, Extras don’t have to worry about overnight or weekend work. That’s because productions will have to pay higher rates for overnight, weekends and productions that go longer than eight hours in a day. It can happen, but according to Maler, it’s rare.
Extras often are needed as a group in scenes, so Maler’s most frequent colleagues are other Background Actors. And while he might occasionally interact with other crew on set, he usually communicates only with the Production Assistants who process his paperwork, take him to and from set and make sure that he is wardrobe, hair and makeup ready.
What is unusual for those looking to become Extras is that they aren’t required to hold any specific job or profession to do background work. Because many Extras want to one day transition into doing more visible performances, though, Maler recommends pursuing other types of acting, such as being a Stand-in.
A Stand-in is close in nature to an Extra, and in many cases, it can pay more. Working as a Stand-in also gives similar experience, such as seeing how a production works and getting to meet other film and television professionals. In general, though, Maler recommends that anyone entering into Extra work understand that they’ll never be the perfect fit for every production. “It’s important to have a thick skin in this business,” he cautions.
All Extras are considered freelance workers. So for someone doing background work as their profession, they will need to be responsible for their own benefits, like health insurance, and taxes. Also, no matter if a person has worked as an Extra once or a hundred times, the usual day rate is the same.
Maler again urges those wanting to do Extra work to try to get into SAG-AFTRA because the union can help to protect the rights of their members. In particular, if a production goes beyond an eight-hour day, by union rules, the Extras must get paid time-and-a-half. If the production goes into 12 or more hours, it becomes double pay. In very rare cases, a production might last for 16 or more hours, which necessitates that the Extra get paid their daily rate per hour.
Unions, Groups & Associations
Maler has mentioned SAG-AFTRA several times and he notes that it’s never too soon to become familiar with this union. The SAG-AFTRA website can be helpful to those just beginning to pursue Extra work.
He also recommends researching local casting offices. However, Maler notes that the majority of Extra work can be found in four locations: Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta and New England. So anyone interested in background acting who doesn’t live in those areas should consider moving. “Nothing you do will guarantee employment,” he warns, but it helps to be where the work is. Plus, casting offices are more likely to work with Extras who are local.
Here are Maler’s tips for how to become a movie extra:
- Register with local casting agencies.
- Understand their individual casting policies.
- Sign up for their emails and newsletters.
- Respond immediately to casting notices.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Listen to what you’re told to do — and do it!” says Maler. The success of an Extra rests largely on their ability to follow directions.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
Maler states, “They think that this line of work is going to lead to their big break.” Again, pursuing background acting work can be helpful for on-set experience and connections, but it won’t translate into a successful mainstream acting career. For those aspiring to that profession, it’s important to pursue other acting opportunities.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Don’t be afraid to ask people about other opportunities,” Maler offers. Reaching out to others is an important way to learn about other casting agencies, productions and resources. He adds, “We’re in this together, so likewise don’t be afraid to share information.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Originally from Baltimore, Deadair Dennis Maler cut his comedy teeth on the absurd duality of living in Baltimore and working in Washington D.C. for nearly two-decades. He has since taken both his 18+ year radio career and his stand-up comedy to Boston; where he finds the people there much nicer than they’re given credit for (probably because he hasn’t been stabbed or robbed yet).
He has been accepted to comedy festivals such as Hell Yes Fest, the Comedy Underground Festival in Austin, TX during SXSW and returns home yearly to perform in the Charm City Comedy Festival. He is the founder of BostonComedyShows.com and host of an iTunes podcast So, What Do You Really Do? interviewing artists and entertainers about their day jobs. He was recently recognized as a Certified Working Artist by the Mayor of Boston’s Office of Arts and Culture.
Dennis has been heard on radio stations throughout the country including SiriusXM, DC101, Z104.3, HOT 99.5, The Party Playhouse with Jackson Blue, and more. He is also the comedy writer for DigBoston. In addition to comedy he can be seen in season 1 of Castle Rock on Hulu, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, and Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty.
Smart, funny, loud, and abrasively social, Deadair Dennis is a human bulldog with a heart of gold. And has been allergy free since 1981.